About Us 

From its inception, the movement to shape Rikers’ future has always demanded public recognition of its past.  From the start of the #CLOSErikers campaign, Freedom Agenda, Create Forward, and the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), through its States of Incarceration project, strategically partnered to use history and memory to propel the movement forward. Now that Mayor de Blasio, an independent commission, and a growing number of New Yorkers have called for Rikers Island to be closed, Freedom Agenda, Create Forward, and HAL are exploring ways to ensure that Rikers is not forgotten and its memory is shaped by those who were detained there, their families, and their communities.

The Rikers Public Memory Project: A Community Truth and Healing Process emerged from those conversations. This project is a community-based, participatory initiative through which our collective stories about the impact of Rikers are activated to envision a more just NYC. The project is an outgrowth of an ongoing partnership between Freedom Agenda, Create Forward, and the Humanities Action Lab, who, together, sought to think through the ways that the process of collectively remembering can be used as a strategic organizing tool in the movement to close Rikers Island.

Making the closure of Rikers a reality and ensuring that its essential problems are never repeated, in New York City or elsewhere, requires powerful acts of imagination that illuminate the realities of the past and present while creating a more equitable vision for the future.

The Rikers Public Memory Project will use storytelling, art-making, and oral histories to document and make visible the impact of Rikers Island by asking:

What should we remember about Rikers?

How should we remember Rikers?

Why should we remember Rikers?

While the immediate aim of the Rikers Public Memory project is to support the important campaign to close Rikers Island, this is just the beginning of an ongoing and dynamic process that uses public memory in pursuit of reparative justice for the communities that bear the mounting cost of mass incarceration.

105 Stories

The lack of documented history on Rikers Island is both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, it highlights the possibility that the horrors of Rikers will not remain in our collective memory, and great risk that those injustices will repeated and relived. On the other hand, it gives us the chance to make sure that those who are most impacted by Rikers can reclaim that history for themselves.

For this reason, the Rikers Public Memory Project has begun conducting audio interviews and collecting oral histories of those who have been detained at Rikers, their families, and those who work there.

These stories will be catalogued as a part of the permanent collections of the New York Public Library. We regularly host story collection days in locations around the city. If you are interested in telling your story or serving as a volunteer interviewer make sure to express your interest when you sign up to receive our newsletter.

Browse Collection

Our Approach

This project has been developed through a unique approach grounded in: accountability to those impacted and the community, collaborating with partners as a means of establishing local connections in neighborhoods that are impacted the most by criminal justice policies, intentional support and care to all those involved in the project, and activating these collected oral histories to ensure that Rikers is closed forever.

History of Rikers

While there is a lot that we do know about the history of Rikers, as illustrated by this timeline, there is so much more that we don’t know. For this reason, the Rikers Public Memory Project hopes to complete the history presented here with the voices of those most impacted by developing an oral history in support of the movement.

To find out how you can contribute to reclaiming this history as an interviewee or volunteer interviewer, sign up to receive our newsletter.

The history of Rikers Island is a century-long narrative of devastation, torture, and inhumanity. Its impact reaches much farther than the East River. It is, in every way, a history of New York City: its communities, its families, its government, and its history of resistance, which is as long as the history of Rikers itself. A book-length history of Rikers has never graced library shelves or been a part of public record. But it does exist in the collective memory of those who have endured the trauma of Rikers. It is that memory that the Rikers Public Memory Project seeks to activate.

Prior to being purchased by New York City in 1884, Rikers Island was owned by a prominent Dutch family, the Rikers (formerly Rycken). The family’s most well-known descendant, Richard Riker, creates an inextricable connection between the island and New York City’s legacy of slavery. During the early 19th century, Richard Riker served as a city recorder, one who managed the criminal courts. Local abolitionists outed him as a member of the Kidnapping Club, wherein he used his judicial power to facilitate the transport of black people to the south to be sold into slavery. Riker persecuted free black people without cause or due process under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act. Even before Rikers Island became a correctional facility, it was already haunted by the practice of stealing precious lives away from their families and communities in the name of the law. 

New York City purchased Rikers Island in 1882. To mark the occasion the New York Times published an article under the headline, “To Build a Bigger Jail.” It was no secret that the city intended to expand its capacity to incarcerate people (both so-called criminals and those who were considered mentally unfit). The jail facility was constructed by incarcerated laborers. It began housing its first detainees in 1932. Yes, this expensive and expansive jail complex opened during the early years of the Great Depression.

During its first decade, Rikers was declared cruel and inhumane by the Prison Association of New York (now known as the Correctional Association of New York) and the Federal Writers Project. In response to these conditions, the Bronx Supreme Court insisted that the correctional facility needed more cell blocks and even more guards in preparation for the influx of “undesirables” that would come with the World’s Fair. In fact, everything that those who are most impacted and on the front lines of the current resistance movement emphasize about the corruption that happens on Rikers today (cramped conditions, denial of basic human rights, corruption among officials, etc.) also happened during its first few years. Today’s organizers are also a part of a long legacy that began during Rikers’ first decade. In 1936, detainees protested artwork in the cafeteria that depicted a feast, a daily reminder of all that they were denied while incarcerated. 

It is important to note that Rikers is also an integral part of America’s cultural landscape. The role played by Rikers in our cultural history shapes what the rest of the world “knows” about the island and all but erases the existence of the millions of people who have entered its doors in

the last ninety years. In 1963, “Ryker’s Island” appeared in The Amazing Spider Man as the place where supervillains are detained. In recent years, Rikers continues to be a part of the Marvel Comic Universe as seen in television shows like Luke Cage, and Daredevil. It is similarly central to the Law and Order franchise as a place to house each episode’s antagonists. As a result, in popular discourse, the lines between reality and fiction as it relates to Rikers are blurred. 

The 1970s were characterized by a lot of resistance on the part of detainees concerning conditions inside and the emergence of more oppressive drug laws and mandatory minimums. The decade saw a number of hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other direct actions. Meanwhile, the complex was getting rapidly bigger and Rockefeller’s War on Drugs increased the city’s capacity to incarcerate once again. In 1971 the first jail for women on Rikers (which coincided with the closing of the Greenwich Village jail) opened along with the designation of a specific unit for lesbian, gay, and transgender detainees. Assata Shakur, who was detained at Rikers during this time, asserted that there were no criminals at the new corrections institution for women, only victims. “Most of the women are black and Puerto Rican..Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by ‘the system.’”

After five decades in existence, the first real conversations about closing Rikers began in the 1980s. Government officials argued that because the majority of people detained at Rikers were pre-trial (a practice that became the norm in 1974), it was inefficient to house people so far from the borough courts. The proposed plan was thwarted by New Yorkers who didn’t want their tax dollars to support “bad people” and strategic resistance from the Correction Officers Benevolent Association.  A century after the New York Times heralded the city’s ability to “build a bigger jail,” imprisoning those deemed unfit or unwanted in deplorable conditions far away from their families and communities had become a part of the fabric of New York City. It was, and remains, a part of who we are rather than a historical blemish that can somehow be redeemed through reform. 

The 1990s ushered in the era of “broken windows” policing, which further increased the city’s capacity to incarcerate and made the decade the most notorious in the jail’s history. At that time, Rikers was the single most occupied jail in the nation, and, at its peak, incarcerated upto 24,000 people daily. Corrections officers working on the island, however, felt that being detained in the most occupied jail in American wasn’t enough. In 1990, hundreds of corrections officers blocked the entrance to Rikers for a day and a half in protest of lenient treatment of detainees. This resulted in major resistance from those inside who were prevented from attending court hearings, receiving visitors, and getting meals at regular times. 

In the 2000s, the 24 hour news cycle provided ample time and space for the media to sensationalize the public discourse surrounding the island. Every year produced a new scandal: stolen artwork, private companies exploiting the economic vulnerability of detainees through illegal contracts with the Department of Corrections, illegal uses of force and strip searches, “stop and frisk” policies guaranteeing the detention of black and brown New Yorkers, bribes, drug smuggling, and “fight clubs” organized by corrections officers. 

Then, in 2015, the suicide of Kaleif Browder made national headlines following his release from Rikers two years earlier, after spending two years in solitary confinement. His family members, other impacted New Yorkers, and allies began calling for the closure of Rikers Island, and one year later, a group of directly impacted organizers and activists launched the #CLOSErikers campaign on the steps of New York City Hall. The campaign garnered the support of over 170 organizations and demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio close New York City’s “Torture Island” while supporting the healing and rebuilding of the communities most harmed by the brutality of Rikers Island and the carceral system. A year later, Mayor de Blasio, and the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice Reform, convened by the City Council, voiced their support for the closure of Rikers. These leaders, those who are directly impacted and on the front lines, are the ones that this project holds itself accountable to. Without them, we would be unable to tell this story from the perspective of those who lived it rather than those of us on the outside.

Movement to Close Rikers

Survivors of Rikers have forced the City to face the human rights crisis that is Rikers Island, and move to close it. On October 19, 2019 New York City Council responded to the calls of formerly incarcerated people by voting 36-13 in favor of closing Rikers, reducing New York City’s jail capacity by 75% and improving conditions for anyone detained. Important progress has been made, but Rikers Island is not yet closed, and communities most harmed by its legacy are still organizing to see their plans realized – including decarcerating New York City, defending the human rights of incarcerated people, divesting from systems of punishment, and redistributing those resources to the people and communities that have been most harmed by mass criminalization and systemic racism.

To learn more about their organizing and the case for closing Rikers, visit Freedom Agenda’s website.

Advisory Committee

The Rikers Public Memory Project is overseen by an advisory group comprised of those most affected and those strategically positioned to create change.

Project Partners

Freedom Agenda is a member-led project, dedicated to organizing people and communities directly impacted by incarceration to achieve decarceration and system transformation. https://fa.urbanjustice.org/ 

Create Forward is a social impact firm harnessing the power of storytelling and design to deliver experiences that advance equity and justice. Our signature initiative is Mass Story Lab, a participatory storytelling process making the narratives of people directly impacted by mass incarceration an instrument of justice.
To learn more about our work visit www.create-forward.com

The Humanities Action Lab (HAL) is a coalition of universities, issue organizations, and public spaces in 36 cities, and growing, that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects on urgent social issues. Students and stakeholders in each city develop local chapters of national traveling exhibits, web projects, public programs, and other platforms for civic engagement, all made possible by our visionary supporters. Projects travel nationally and internationally to museums, public libraries, cultural centers, and other spaces in each of the communities that helped create them. We always welcome new institutions to join our projects, so please get involved, or reach out if you have any questions. www.humanitiesactionlab.org

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